Mutual aid agreements and officer involved shooting protocols came about largely in the public sector as a result of events or incidents which were larger than any given jurisdiction's ability to mount an effective response. In fact, I haven't even heard them mentioned anywhere which includes a few of the police sites that I visit. They are effective tools and might have stopped the Ferguson riots altogether. It begs the large question- what good is training if law enforcement doesn't use it? What good is a protocol that has been proven to work if law enforcement agencies don't deploy them?
Today I'd like to talk a little bit about what went wrong in the Ferguson, Missouri officer involved shooting of Michael Brown, the subsequent riots, and the victim class. I'd also like to talk a little about disclosure and honesty from both sides. Could all of the rioting and subsequent fallout been preventable? Maybe.
But first two caveats. I have read hundreds of articles online, viewed several videos- mostly of Michael Brown and various press conferences gathered in the wake of the shooting. I am by no means an expert on the Michael Brown shooting nor do I have access to all of the innermost details of that event. Secondly, I intensely dislike armchair quarterbacks- having been one myself and quite often, and eventually realizing late in my career the pomposity of one who looks back at all of the flaws of any given event and cherry picks those flaws at their leisure while mulling things over ad infinitum- and then arrogantly pronounces what should have happened. Having said that- I do think it is possible to learn from our mistakes without throwing anyone under the bus.
So first, I'd like to introduce a video of Ferguson Police Chief, Tom Jackson. It is about ten minutes long. I have to tell you I got a little sick to my stomach remembering that kind of stress. Thank God, I didn't have anyone on our police department shoot anyone under similar circumstances. It was published on You Tube on Aug. 15 a full six days after the Brown shooting. I am not sure when the actual press conference took place- I just note this was published on the 15th.
In my 25 years of policing and education, I enrolled in an officer involved shooting class sometime in the mid-90's. Prior to that class which I think lasted 24 hours, I had no clue of the devastation that an officer involved shooting might wreak upon our community and I also had no idea about the immense scope of the subsequent investigation. In all, and it's been awhile, a shooting (one person, one event) such as the Michael Brown incident- would probably take a minimum of 20-24 officers and investigators by my estimation back then. In a town the size of Ferguson, Mo. pop. 21,000- according to the 2010 census- the proper investigation is simply not possible. The Ferguson City P.D. like any other law enforcement agency, cannot be allowed to conduct it's own investigations by design or by policy. They are compromised at the outset- they are involved. Any investigation they conduct regardless of the outcome will simply appear to be compromised and most likely would be- by friendly and sympathetic investigators hoping to clear one of their own. Indeed, this is still a problem even when enlisting outside and well trained investigators beyond the grasp of Ferguson and it's politics.
Many jurisdictions in the United States have emergency operation plans. EOP's for short. These are plans developed well in advance for likely and unlikely emergencies. They might range from large scale events involving multiple casualties, to weather related disasters and earthquakes, hazardous chemical leaks and spills, riots, anything where containment is necessary to prevent further damage or loss of life and where manpower requirements are calculated allocated prior to the incident. All personnel involved in the implementation of an EOPs plan should know their duties and responsibilities and be directed as an event unfolds. They should drill and practice and many do. The Federal Government has often targeted, directed, and financially encouraged municipalities to participate in this type of training so that everyone should know what the duties and responsibilities are of everyone from the command post on down.
Having said all of that- here are two caveats. You can prepare for 50 emergencies and the one you don't prepare for or are working on, perhaps the 51st EOPs plan- like flying hijacked planes into skyscrapers- is the one that unfolds. Secondly, no matter how much you prepare and drill, the actual event always deviates in size and scope. Unintended and unforeseen consequences arise. Having said all of that, it is far better to have a plan in place rather than nothing at all. Winging it becomes the playground of preventable and devastating consequences and career suicide. Not having a plan is not serving or protecting anyone. These are nothing more than mutual aid agreements and unfortunately I have always given credit for mutual aid agreements to the mattress backs. (Firefighters have been using them for eons and teasing them is a hobby of mine)
I think a drilled on plan for an officer involved shooting might have prevented many outcomes in Ferguson. I don't think Ferguson had one because the Chief doesn't mention it- all he says at the conference is that he called St. Louis County for help and then he complicated that by stating he had a long friendship with the Sheriff. People looking for impartial and unbiased investigations do not want to hear that.
Even an unpracticed plan would have been better.
Under an excellent plan, a supervisor immediately implements the officer involved shooting protocol upon arrival at the scene. His duties are caring for the injured parties, preserving and protecting evidence within the scene, identifying potential witnesses. (Note that I did not say interview them) Once the officer involved shooting protocol goes out- calls are made from dispatch to all of the participating agencies who send personnel for assignment. It is a tremendously labor intensive undertaking. Officers are assigned duties by a pre determined supervisor. For instance- two officers might be assigned to each ambulance for interviews and evidence gathering. Clothing, blood draws, gunshot residue, etc. Two might be assigned to the involved officer(s). Personnel may be assigned to photograph, sketch, measure, and gather scene evidence. Two may be assigned for any subsequent search warrants. Personnel are assigned to canvass the area. More personnel are needed to gather and record witness statements. Personnel are assigned to command post and press information duties. Using two officers helps preserve the integrity of each task and also provides an added measure of safety. Some protocols involve prosecuting attorneys offices and investigators, state police agencies, and the attorney generals office- in addition to participating county and city police departments.
Officer involved shooting protocols are an excellent tool. They provide integrity, sufficient manpower and safety, and the best outcome available. They also allow you to stand in front of a crowd of reporters with some measure of confidence that this is something you have planned for. Explaining the process would have been a HUGE asset. People might have thought at the very least that we have some measure of confidence that the investigation will be thorough, credible, and impartial rather than hearing the Chief wing it at a press conference. In fact, a Press Information Officer might have been designated to speak to the press and prevent errant statements. I am in awe that after 20 or 30 years of teaching agencies about officer involved shooting protocols- that agencies are still operating without them. Which brings me to another point. Honesty, disclosure, and fairness.
You have to address these things quickly. I don't believe the Chief did this in Ferguson and the whole situation spiraled out of control quickly. Riots began the following day. Had the Chief been on this with a sense of urgency- he might have prevented the riots the following day. Statements to the press must be reviewed for mistakes usually by attorneys- city and prosecutors according to the protocol. Why not have a plan and provide it to the press and all of the parties involved? Here -this is what we are going to do. Disclose the truth.
In the video you'll note over and over again- the Chief saying things like "I held the video as long as I could" or that he released the video of the store robbery because he had to as the result of freedom of information act requests. Why not just give it to the press as part of a press release?
In the video you will also see the Chief surrounded by up to ten- some muscled up- cops. I am not sure what that was all about. I don't think it helped matters any, however after 6 days of rioting and threats, it kind of gives you an idea of the mindset. That particular piece of choreography conveys a sense of "us against them." I used to know old time cops that have tried to intimidate judges by showing up en masse to sentencings with similar displays. It is almost a show of force and it certainly doesn't conjure up goodwill. These types of tactics simply don't work. Support from your staff is fine- from a distance.
Could the Chief have delivered a much more effective statement? Of course. Is the Chief a polished speaker? No. I have to say I like him though- I got the feeling that he is a good guy and not a politician because he is very uncomfortable. Good cops are rarely political animals. They shun any sort of limelight where politicians often run to it. That's not to say that you can't be a gifted orator, politician, and straight shooting lawman but that combination in my experience has been quite rare or limited to elected officials rather than appointed ones.
Last but not least. An officer shooting protocol provides the most level, impartial playing field for everyone involved. Especially the officers involved. Had a plan been in place- Darren Wilson might still have a job. He certainly would have been more defensible as every agency including the federal government launches attacks and civil litigation. The family of Michael Brown would also have received the best service available and that would also help them and a jury resolve this in a civil court room later on. By virtue of the fact that I don't think there was a protocol involved here- Darren Wilson got a raw deal. The officers on that department or any other agency absent a designed protocol might very well suffer the same fate or worse.
I got a little sick to my stomach as I reviewed clips regarding Ferguson. It brought back all of the stress and responsibility that get piled high on a a guy like Chief Jackson. Additionally, depending on the political scene in Ferguson I noted that the Mayor ran unopposed last election and is nowhere to be found. I think that's good. At least it shows a little support or the Mayor would be actively trying to dump the Chief to save face. I can tell you with relative certainty that next election- someone with an ax to grind will run and although I am impressed that the Chief has been able to hang onto his job thus far- I think his time is limited. That's the business. I hope I'm wrong.
Dorian Johnson's (with Michael Brown that day) irresponsible, biased, and dishonest statements (most of which were contradicted by evidence or proven false) amounted to a man yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Johnson did a very real disservice and injustice to everyone involved. Conjuring up statements like Brown had his hands up when he was shot (proven false by three autopsies) or claiming that Officer Wilson told them to "get the fuck out of the street" are designed to inflame people and most likely- they are lies. Unfortunately Wilson had no means of defense at that point, the community will undoubtedly believe what they want to believe, and it's hard to say whether or not a good plan might have overcome the statements of an irresponsible witness given a microphone and seemingly unlimited face time in front of cameras. I viewed a number of Johnson statements on You Tube.
I found Johnson's statements quite predictable and sickening. I often wonder how people like Johnson sleep at night or whether or not they feel any sense of responsibility for anything that happened that day or in subsequent days. Probably not. At no time did I ever hear Johnson mention that bullying a store owner, stealing, walking down the middle of the street, or attacking cops, was any fault of theirs. Instead, Johnson would have us all believe that he is this innocent picked on bystander, and through no fault of his own, found himself in this horrible situation. That's all too common now days- I used to call this inability to self examine and accept responsibility- an epidemic. It is a type of dishonesty that enables us to blame everyone else for our poor decisions. I see it's still with us- causing riots. It's not a race issue, it never has been. It's a cultural problem that involves ego, dishonesty, and rationalization which hopes to attract sympathy by manipulating the emotions of others into believing we are victims. Johnson by all appearances, seems to be part of our national epidemic. Somehow we have to recognize this and take action before the entire fabric of our society is completely destroyed. One Ferguson at a time.
We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.
-Martin Luther King